I didn’t realize I was tapping my nails until Vikas gave me a desperate look from across the desk.
I sat up, directed my words to the phone between us and to the young analyst on the other end of it.
“Josh? I didn’t hear the last bit, what did you say? Five? I thought it was seven. Yesterday it was seven. Why did it change to five?”
“The occupancy forecast changed,” Josh said. “We have stronger confidence in the new answer, but it’s not as high.”
Vikas leaned in. “Alicia . . . ,” he started. I looked at the thinning hair on the top of his head. He sat back. I held up a hand and spoke into the phone.
“Josh—I don’t understand. How did it change? How did you get it so wrong?”
“It wasn’t wrong, more like they didn’t give us all the information. We thought it was a seven-year-average term, but now it’s turned out to be five years.” His voice was loud and tense.
“No,” Vikas interrupted, correcting his analyst, “They said they were doing a five-year with a two-year renewal and then pushed it to a one-year renewal at the tenant’s option. Some of the leases weren’t locked down. Isn’t an issue for the anchor tenants but might be for the smaller spaces.”
My face felt hot. I picked up my coffee mug, cold coffee—why not? Shit. Empty. I wanted to end this call. I muted the phone and looked at Vikas. “What is going on? Do you trust the numbers?”
Vikas was in his late thirties. He had made partner this round but was still my junior. He sat back and shrugged. He always shrugged. Like he was saying, “I don’t know.” Why didn’t he just say “I don’t know”? He was often gentle, his tone patient. Perhaps some people liked that, clients. I didn’t, I always felt he was hiding something.
“Alicia, we’ve never worked with these guys before, the sellers,” he continued slowly. “We have to get the final numbers for the second-floor rebuild. It was a large range last time I checked, and we didn’t yet know about the tenant contract vacancy. I said that, remember? They were timid about the first number to begin with, but then . . .”
I unmuted the phone and asked, “So, where does that leave us now? Anyone?”
“Reduced by 300 bps,” Josh answered.
“Which is what?” I asked.
“Seven to ten million.” Josh’s voice, still tight.
“What time is it now?” I looked at my watch. 8:30. “Guys, I have to go. Figure this out and send me the final summary. When does the deal close?”
“We want to close Thursday. We have a few more details,” Vikas answered.
“Fine. Lock the numbers, send them to me. I’ll be online tonight at 10.”
I lifted the receiver and put it down loudly. The phone has a hang-up button, but once I slammed the receiver as a joke, an overemphasis of power or something. I like how it felt, so I always do it.
Vikas didn’t move. He clearly wanted to explain how a deal that was going to be signed in two days did not have the final projections locked down. But I didn’t care. It wasn’t actually a big issue—I just didn’t want the team to get complacent or lazy. I shook my head at him and stood up, starting to tidy my desk. I needed to get going.
He stood up and piled his papers and computer on the desk. His pants were wrinkled in the crotch, too much sitting. He needed to get them dry-cleaned. His tie also had something on it—I’m sure he had realized it by now.
“I told them to double-check the leases.” Vikas shuffled his things.
“It doesn’t matter.”
“What are you doing tonight?” he asked.
I looked up at the weird question “Tonight?”
He quickly added, “Doesn’t Steve start his treatment tomorrow? That’s what Patty said.”
Sharing my assistant, Patty, with other partners was a necessary economy, but it was a nuisance when my private life became office gossip. I put down my things and looked at him.
“Who told her that? I didn’t tell her that. How did she know?”
“Um . . . I think I think Steve did. She said she talked to him this week, and he mentioned it. I’m sorry, Alicia, I didn’t mean to . . . I don’t think Steve said it was a secret.“
“It’s OK, Vikas. It’ll be fine. It’s his first treatment. He’ll be fine. It’s the best place for myeloma. The best oncologist in the city.”
“Yes, of course. I knew a—”
“Yes, thanks, Vikas.” He wanted to tell me a story about someone with cancer. I was so sick of people having cancer. It was all anyone talked about to me. My husband gets cancer and I cease to be the manager of one of the biggest private wealth funds in Chicago, I’m just wife to Steve, cancer sufferer. That and how strong Steve was, and “of course he’d be all right” and “a tragedy that it happened to him of all people.” Like there are people who deserve cancer, and Steve wasn’t one of them.
I grabbed my bag under the desk and threw my shoes under it. I closed my computer and grabbed my boots from the credenza.
“I really appreciate it, Vik. But I’ve gotta run. Supposed to storm in the next hour. I have to get to the store first.”
“Yes, of course.” He was a nice guy, kind. He moved towards the door, and I noticed his suit was too broad in the shoulders.
“Hey, you know, Vik, I have a really good tailor. He does mostly men’s suits—you want me to give you his number?”
“Uh . . . sure. Yeah, thanks. I just haven’t, well, you know, with the baby, Ashuma and I haven’t been able to do much of anything.”
“Of course. I think it will get better. I have a girlfriend who was knocked off her feet for a few months, but then it got better once they get on a schedule. Lakeview Tailors, or something—ask Patty.”
I wasn’t being a bitch, I was trying to help. I hope he knew that.
“I will. The storm is supposed to be bad. Four or five inches. I’m going to wait and leave afterwards. They’ll have the roads cleaned up, and at least there won’t be anyone out. Late night anyway. Ashuma’s parents are back, helping out.”
“Nice of them. I’ll be online at 10 p.m.”
“Yes, of course. Hey, why are you going to the store right now?” He said this almost jokingly as he drifted towards the hallway.
“I have to get a few things. For Steve. He loves strawberry shortcake. I have to get the stuff.” I pulled out my phone.
“You cook?” Vikas hugged his computer.
“I cook. Well, I make this. He loves it.”
“Can you get fresh strawberries? In winter?”
“Frozen. They thaw, they’re fine.” I grabbed my coat from behind the door. Tied my scarf, a deep-purple cashmere scarf I’d gotten for my 40th. I didn’t want a party, so Steve got me a few nice gifts instead. That is to say, I had gotten them—we decided to buy our own gifts, it was much easier. “So get me the doc by 10.”
“Wish him luck. We’ll be thinking of him.”
“I will. I’ll see you tomorrow.”
“You’re coming in?” he asked. His face was old, his hair graying at the sides, but he looked like he was in his 20s, like he had baby fat around his eyes that stopped the wrinkles. He was a nice guy, worked hard.
“Well, yeah. Steve doesn’t need me at the hospital. We need to close this deal. It’s just a pill, the chemo—it’s just a pill. It’s not radiology. It’s amazing what they do. They give him a pill, and they have to check his blood, but he won’t stay overnight.”
“He’ll be fine. Night.”
Vikas walked to the right, and I turned left towards the elevators. Patty was at her desk, packing to leave. She was the oldest of all the assistants, in her 50s, I think it was her second career. She was good, not great. She was dyslexic, messed up dates and flights. She talked to me like I was her daughter. I doubt she did this for the males. Someday, I’d have to tell her how sexist it was.
“Night, Patty.” She’s going to stop me. She’s going to grab my arm, above the elbow. She’s going to say something motherly, distressing.
“Goodnight, Alicia. Are you all set?”
“Yes, thank you. I’m fine. I’ll be back online at 10 if you need anything.”
“We’re thinking of you. And Steve, I spoke with him this week. He sounds so positive. Just like him. Give him my best. Let me know if you need anything at all.”
Yeah I need my husband to not have cancer.
“Nice of you. I’m good. I’ll see you tomorrow.” I walked down the hall towards the elevator bank.
“You don’t have to come in tomorrow!” I kept walking and shouted “Goodnight” over my shoulder.
I’m glad your life is so easy, Patty —a few calls, a few flights, half of which you won’t get right. If I don’t come in, deals don’t get done, people don’t get paid.
The elevator flew up to the 34th floor. The wind in the shaft was louder than normal, howling. Thank God it was empty, people had left before the storm. I read a few emails. My bag fell off my shoulder to the crux of my elbow, catching on my scarf and pulling at my neck. I stared at my scratched reflection in the brushed steel doors. My mouth was thin, my eyes deep and dark. My jaw hurt. My skin looked transparent. This lighting, six recessed lights. Probably energy efficient. The line of the doors went right down the middle of my face, which split in two when the doors opened.
I walked towards the building’s entrance. The snow slammed against the windows, but it was too windy to accumulate. It looked like it was falling up. That’s Chicago—it snows and snows and doesn’t look like it will amount to anything. Then all of a sudden it’s piled up, you can’t move, and everything you normally see every day is gone, covered in thick, lumpy, white.
“Alicia!” a voice boomed across the lobby.
Shawn. Of course Shawn. He leaned over his small desk as I passed. They always put the social guards on at night. You can’t get out after 8 p.m. without them talking to you like they know you. Like they are welcoming you to a church service. Shawn treated me like I was his daughter, or maybe his younger mistress. I don’t know.
“Early night tonight, I see. Good for you!”
“Hello, Shawn.” I’m not your fucking daughter. “Yes, I need to get home tonight. The storm.”
“Sometimes you guys, I think you might not have a home to get to! You all stay so late. Well, goodnight, Alicia, you take care. We’re going to get four to five inches.”
“Are you staying all night?” What a stupid question—of course he was here, that was his job. Before he could answer, I called out, “Stay warm. Goodnight, Shawn,” and pushed on the revolving door. The trapped wind howled and pushed me forward out into the frozen air and swirling flakes.
Our parking lot has been under construction for months, since the spring floods. The operations team found us a make-shift lot a few blocks away. Normally, I enjoy the walk, but tonight it would be torture. I remembered noticing that morning that Lake Michigan had frozen over, choked with ice. How it is possible ice and water exist next to each other. One is so cold and frigid, and the other warm and dynamic. Why doesn’t the ice touching the water melt? Why doesn’t the water freeze?
What keeps them together, next to each other like that? Water and ice?
I crossed State to a small, lit convenience store. The L rattled and shook its pylons, snow fell and scattered. I needed Bisquick, ice cream . . . We had butter and strawberries, but I had to get home and get them out of the freezer. No, I’d call Steve. But that would ruin the surprise. No, I had to call him. I wouldn’t be home in time to get them out to thaw.
Snow blew up my coat, the wind at my back pushed me into the store. The shelves were bare, picked carcasses left over from people rushing to get home. Chicagoans panic at the thought of a storm, like they will get snowed in for weeks. Like this city isn’t the best in the country for snow removal.
I looked around. Frozen food was in the back. The kid behind the counter looked up quickly then back down at his phone. There were a few customers, but I couldn’t tell who or what they were. Just coats and hats and you imagine the fat, ruddy bodies underneath.
I grabbed two pints of Haagen-Dazs. I needed Bisquick—I didn’t have time to make the biscuits from scratch, and I had no idea how to make them without Bisquick. I found what looked like the dry foods aisle. There was so much junk—beef jerky, sugared cereal, dried fruit. No yellow box. Shit. I really didn’t want to go to a supermarket or find another convenience store.
I went up to the counter, put down the ice cream and took out my wallet.
“Do you have any Bisquick?”
The kid looked up. He couldn’t have been more than 18. He was one of those kids that looks like he doesn’t give a shit in the world about anything and yet is completely scared of everything. He had dark skin and black hair, a loose shirt. In winter, a T-shirt. Burnt-caramel skin. Probably Pakistani. They are always Pakistani. You guess they are Indian, but they aren’t. And they correct you, they always correct you.
“Do you have any Bisquick?” I repeated.
“What is it?” His English was perfect. He must have been born here. It was probably his parents’ store. There was a heater in the store above him, it blew down on me, hot and dry. It felt nice. I removed my scarf and put it on the counter.
“It’s a baking material. I looked in the dry foods aisle. I didn’t see it. It’s a yellow box, like a cereal box.”
“I don’t know,” he said and started to ring up the ice cream.
“Well, before you charge me for those, and then tell me to go somewhere else for Bisquick, can you find out if you carry it? Maybe you have some in the back?”
He looked at me. Surveyed my face, tried to figure out just how much he cared. He stepped down from behind the counter, moved his hips around the stacks of gum and candy without knocking anything, and walked jauntily towards the dry foods aisle.
“No, I already looked,” I called at him. “I don’t need you to look . . .” This was so exhausting. And I had forgotten to call Steve. I fumbled with my gloves and removed my phone from the wet depths of my coat.
Steve answered quickly. “Hi! Where are you?”
“In a store. Still in the Loop. Trying to find something. They don’t have it. Or they don’t know if they don’t have it. It’s a circus. Look, I need a favor. I wanted to make you strawberry shortcake tonight. It was supposed to be a surprise. I’m sorry. We have strawberries in the freezer, can you get them out? They need to thaw. I don’t know how the roads are, or if I have to go to another store or what. Can you pull them out and put them in an aluminum bowl? Not a glass one, aluminum.”
Few details from my mom’s repeated attempts to get me to cook actually stayed with me to adulthood. I didn’t put myself in her shoes, didn’t listen—that was clear enough. But the first time she introduced me to strawberry shortcake, it began with her simple, almost haphazard instruction to use metal bowls to thaw the berries, not glass. For some reason, I found it interesting. When I met Steve, he loved strawberry shortcake so much—his mom used to make it too—I called my mom and got her recipe, substituting Bisquick, of course. But I didn’t tell her that.
“Leese, you know I love your shortcake, but you don’t have to cook. It’s not a big deal tomorrow.”
“I’m doing it. I’ll be home in half an hour if I can get Bisquick. This kid working here is looking for it, pretending that he knows what he’s doing. He has no idea.”
“Ok. Well, come home, OK? Before the snow.”
“Snow’s already started. Nothing accumulating yet. Are you OK?”
“Yeah, great. Lady is sleeping on me. She keeps making a clicking noise, and then she lets out this loud breath. Snoring. It’s hilarious!.” Lady Bird is our basset hound. She was only a year old, but her body was thick and strong—she was so heavy she hurt my legs. Now she only sleeps on Steve.
“I’ve never heard her do that. Don’t forget the berries.”
“I won’t. Love you.”
I hung up and watched the kid. He was walking back down the aisle towards me, empty-handed.
“I told you I looked. It isn’t there. Do you carry it, in stock I mean?”
“No. I don’t know.” He walked back up behind the register and picked up the ice cream, starting to ring it up.
“Do you even know what Bisquick is? No offense, but I’m sure it’s not something you grew up eating. It’s for biscuits, pancakes—it’s a mix. Like flour.”
He scowled. “I know what pancakes and biscuits are.”
“I’m sure you do. I’m saying I doubt you’ve ever made them or seen them made. Can you just check if you carry it? I don’t want to go to another store.”
He put his cell phone to his ear and looked at me. Then he said a few words I didn’t understand, his voice was quiet but tense. He put the phone back on the counter.
“He will come out.”
“Who will come out? The owner? Who were you talking to?”
“My father. He’s back there.” He waved towards the back of the store and then sat down and started typing on his phone. I looked around, the other customers had left. The windows were fogged and dripping water on the inside. The water collected on a few disheveled shovels and stacks of blue sports drinks beneath the windows. I could see my reflection through the drips. When one ran down, it seemed to take my color with it.
“Sorry, when is he coming, soon? Don’t you have a computer system, can’t you look it up?“
I heard a noise, a man walked down one of the aisles. He must have come from the back. He wore a long light-colored tunic and thick boots, which were covered in salt lines. He wore a dark-blue down vest buttoned up his front. His head was covered in a baby-blue turban, neatly knotted. His beard was thick, soft—weaves of gray and black. His skin was soft and smooth, caramel like his son’s but lighter.
“Hi. Thank you for coming out. As I explained to your son—your son here, is this your son?” The man nodded. “I’m trying to find Bisquick. I need it tonight. There isn’t any on the shelves.”
He gave me a look, at my face, like he was pretending to listen. Then he started looking around the store casually, taking in stock, empty shelves. “Yes. We do not have it,” he said calmly.
“Do you know what it is? I don’t think your son even understood what it is. You didn’t even look.” I felt like I was talking in circles.
“I know we do not have it,” he said again, still calmly but a bit louder.
“You don’t have it, or you don’t carry it? Look, are you Pakistani? Am I right?”
He looked at my eyes. It reminded me of his son a few minutes earlier. Their dark eyes were pools of knowledge and secrets only they understood.
“I am Punjabi.”
“Punjabi, what does that mean? Are you Pakistani or Indian? Forget it. Forget it. I just need the stuff. Perhaps you don’t know what it is. I don’t mean to be offensive, but it’s an American thing. Maybe you don’t know. It’s a yellow box. Blue letters. Or green letters. I’m sure you don’t eat a lot of pancakes. Can’t you just check? I don’t want to go to another store in this shitty weather.”
The son said something. His father snapped at him. The son looked up and said something angrily directed at his father. I couldn’t understand but I knew they were talking about me. About me, this stupid American bitch and the weather and the fucking box of biscuit mix. I felt desperate.
“Yes. I understand. We do not carry it.” The father looked right at me. I realized how short he was. He didn’t come up above the aisle. He said something else to his son, something I didn’t understand. It sounded like he might have told him to be more polite or something. That’s what my mom would have said to me, yelled at me.
“Sir, with all due respect, you didn’t even look. Do you even know how to spell it? Do you know what I’m talking about? Have you ever used it before? Why are you being so difficult? Why is this so complicated!? I can’t go to another place now, and if I can’t get it here, I CAN’T GET IT.”
My phone rang. It was Steve. I turned my back on the man and his son and answered it. “What?”
“Leese—? What’s the matter? I sent you a video of Lady. Snoring. It’s hilarious. She’s got the sniffles. What the heck’s the matter? Are you OK?”
I squeezed the phone and threw my bag on the carpet, soggy with salt and slush.
“Steve, hang on,” I said. I turned back to the man and his son. “It’s not like you have anything else to do—there isn’t anyone here, you’re clearly not restocking. I just want you to look in the back, or basement, or wherever you keep your stuff! Can you go do that, please?!”
“Leese?” Steve’s voice was far away.
“Yes. I’m here.” I exhaled my exasperation into the phone.
“I sent you a video. To keep you company on the drive home. Leese, what happened? Are you OK? Are you stuck? Should I come get you?” His voice was soft. His west-Texas accent made my nickname sound musical, like it had three syllables, sometimes more.
“No. I’m fine. I’m just . . . I’m fine. I’ll be home soon.“ I hung up the phone and held it. The screen went back to my home page. Some stupid photo of Lake Michigan. I opened my email and tapped on the video. It was a close-up of Lady’s face. Her snout, whiskers, soft ears, stretched eyes. She was moving softly in her sleep, making these snuffling sounds. I could see Steve’s jeans under her; this was happening at our apartment, right now.
The man and his son were looking at me. Waiting.
“Well, why are you both standing there? Didn’t you look? Why didn’t you look? What else do you have to do? I know you’re not going to go make biscuits—because you have no idea what they fucking are! Admit it, just admit it. YOU DON’T UNDERSTAND, do you?!”
The kid stood up behind the counter and looked at me with a look of desolation, part pity, part something else, struggling to get out. He said quietly but strongly—almost as if he was throwing his breath, hate, and the words at me—
“You should not be so racist.”
I looked at him. He was taller than his dad. His hair was thick, short. I wondered if he was supposed to wear a turban by now, he was at least 18. But he wasn’t wearing one. I wondered if that hurt his dad, or if he was proud of his son for being different, independent. This kid thought he knew everything, religion, racism. The world. He didn’t know anything. He didn’t know a fucking single thing. He didn’t know about working. Or sickness or anything. Why didn’t his father teach him these things? Why did his father tell him to shut up?
“How is it being racist to ask that you check if you carry a product? It is racist to assume that you might not eat a lot of biscuits? I know you are just a kid. I’m sure you haven’t seen much or know much. Don’t use words you don’t understand. Especially to a customer! Don’t use words like that! Not to me. I’m your CUSTOMER.”
Sweat ran down my skin. The air was hot, my skin was shriveling, cracking, exploding under the pressure inside my head.
The kid came out from behind the register, moving his hips around the displays, like a dance. He stood next to his father and said quietly, “Don’t yell at my father. Don’t yell at me. We don’t have what you need. You need to leave.” They spoke a few more words I didn’t understand. The father looked at him, then at me. His face was expressionless, but he dropped his gaze to my hands. Which I realized were uncovered and extremely red.
I could hear whatever was inside me howling to get out. I could feel my face flush and my pulse quicken. I could smell something—metal, iron? The shelves, money? I didn’t know what it was. It was overwhelming.
I felt my phone and looked down at it. I remembered the video. Lady. We fell in love with her the minute we saw her. Last spring, we were driving west of the city trying to find a trail to hike. Illinois horse country. We drove past a farm with a sign: “Bassett Hound puppy for sale.” I don’t like dogs, not in apartments. Steve grew up with them and had always wanted one, but I had said no. Then, on a whim, he turned into the driveway, and the litter was right there, fenced in on the front porch. Scrambling and barking. Their mom was outside watching them, her swollen teats dangling on the ground. Tired but watchful. The family that owned the farm had found homes for all but one, did we want her? I thought it was weird that they hadn’t advertised on the Internet, but she shrugged and said, “why bother—signs work too.” She had some belief in the goodness of strangers.
Lady was right in front, strong, powerful. She moved towards us, and her little tail looked like it would wag her entire body if she didn’t hold on. It wasn’t the kind of dog Steve imagined owning. He had always wanted a more athletic dog, like he grew up with on his family’s small ranch. But she’d do, he said. She’ll do. We bought her, and Steve named her Lady Bird. She wasn’t weaned, so we promised to return in a few weeks.
I remember that time, after we found her and before we brought her home. We filled our house with dog things. Toys and bowls and food. We imagined having her bark at us, wag her tail, or whimper when she got stuck in the closet. The first night, we let her sleep with us, and we both stayed up. She was helpless, needing us, needing to connect. We slept with her between us, whispering to each other over her about the family we had now, the life, the things we’d do.
After a while, Steve’s breathing slowed, and he drifted off. I watched Lady. I had never had a dog, never been this close to one. I looked at her snout, inches away from my own face. I rolled the fur back and touched her teeth. I ran her ears between my fingers, lifted them, and let them flop back. Her paw pads were cold, her nails dull but thick. She started making wheezing noises like she was snoring. I fell asleep with her ear in my hand. When I woke, she was on her back on top of my legs, completely open, vulnerable, and trusting. Her stomach, vitals – everything open to the world.
My eyes watered and vision blurred.
The shopowner and his son were waiting for me to say something, waiting for me to leave. I held up my phone. “It’s a video of my dog, snoring.” The man looked at me, looked at the phone, then back at me. The son stared at me, didn’t say anything. I felt lost, I wanted to get home.
“Nevermind.” I just wanted to get home.
I closed my phone and picked up my bag, and turned to the door and opened it, pushing against the wind. The man and his son started speaking as soon as I opened the door, raised voices. The air was so cold it felt like it should be crystal, touchable. My head immediately started to sting where the sweat had run down. My hands were chapped, red, my pockets wet.
I walked down State. I saw the lights of a small pharmacy. I knew they didn’t carry food, and yet I went in, drifted in on the wind. The store was clean and big and bright. It had soft Christmas music playing, something with bright, rich voices that sounded like they were from the 1940s and singing for the salvation of their country.
The shelves were stocked, neatly, arranged, nothing was missing or out of place. I walked over to the aisles of medicines, vitamins, Band-Aids—the things people buy to patch themselves up. To patch up people they cared about. I wandered into cold and flu remedies with its neatly lined rows of boxes, containers, rolls of pills. Pills for everything. Pills for sunshine. Pills for airplanes. Pills for shitting. Pills for eating. Pills for not eating. Pills for noses. Pills for knees. Pills for blood. Pills for aches. Pills for pain.
It’s a pill, just a pill. He won’t have to have radiation, not yet anyway. We’ve found this pill to be very effective, in trials at least.
No pills for cancer, though.
Those come from a hospital. Those come after blood tests and white-blood-cell counts and drips and needles and blood. My nose twitched, like someone had pulled out an eyebrow. A pressure pushed inside my head, behind my sinuses. My chest tightened. I dropped my bag.
Yes, it’s amazing the advances that have been made for cancer. So much more advanced than years ago. I don’t want to give you false hope, but you’re lucky we caught it when we did. Steve is very strong.
Steve cried easily. He was a modern guy, in touch with his feelings. That is why he said he couldn’t live in Texas anymore, didn’t fit in, he joked. He teared up when we got married, when I made Partner, when his article about systematic damage to the Great Lakes watershed was published in Nature, when I turned 40. When he was diagnosed, I drove us home. He cried, silently. I tried to cheer him up. I didn’t cry, maybe because I was driving. When we got home, he was eerily calm. He got Lady’s leash and took her out. They came back a few hours later. She looked exhausted, he was puffy around the eyes but smiled when he saw me.
After that, Steve started to read as much as he could on myeloma. He studied it. Like he studied everything else, carefully and patiently. Lovingly. Obsessively. It drove me nuts, like somehow he was going to fix himself. His optimism felt so misplaced here, so weak in the face of cancer, death.
One night, he was up late talking in chat rooms of patients and survivors. I had had enough, “You can’t make it go away by learning about it! You can know all you want to know, and that won’t make it go away!”
He was quiet for a second, then said “I’m not trying to make it go away. The oncologist and medicine do that.”
“Then what are you doing? You’ve been up forever, you’re always online, you don’t do your own research anymore. You’re obsessed with the chat rooms. Why aren’t you taking care of yourself?!”
Turning his head back to the screen, he sat back in his chair. “I’m destroying it.”
“What? Destroying what, for Christ’s sake.” I rubbed the back of my neck.
“Its power. Cancer has a power. We fear it because we don’t understand it. Where it comes from, why it grows, and how to stop it. The doctors understand it, you know, scientifically, but I’ll be damned if I don’t have something to do with my own survival. I’m not going to sit back and let it happen to me. So I am gonna try to understand it—psychologically. I don’t want to be afraid of it. I’m gonna understand every possible thing about it and how it affects me, so that no matter what happens, I’m not gonna be surprised. I won’t be weak. I won’t be afraid.”
I looked at his face, so thin already. Or maybe that was the shadows of the desk lamp. He was normally so healthy. He had moments of self-empowerment that were so strong, convincing. It was hard not to admire him. I don’t know where they came from. The opposite place of where his cancer came from, I suspect. How could one person be so vast?
How could something so vital exist next to something so frozen?
It reminded me of the ice on Lake Michigan. And the water. Steve was like the water that never froze. I was the ice, clearly.
“Whatever. It’s late.” I snapped my fingers at Lady, and she followed me upstairs and jumped onto the bed while I brushed my teeth in the bathroom. She wasn’t on the bed when I came back—she’d retreated to her cushion in the corner of the landing. Steve and I never discussed his behavior again. I told myself that he was the best judge of what he needed. But I just couldn’t deal with him. He was in denial. I couldn’t help him.
A new song came on in the store. Loud voices brought me back to the cold and flu remedies. I was holding a box of Band-Aids I didn’t remember picking up. I laughed. Then the storm came.
The Christmas song screamed at me. My bag fell. The box of Band-Aids fell. I fell. The floor was carpeted but hard. I learned forward, knocking over boxes and pills. I reached up and hung on to the shelf. I closed my eyes, my body shook. Tears streaked down my face, collected on my chin, and dripping onto my knees curled up under my body. I buried my head in my arm. Everything was spinning, and I just had to hold on, to that metal shelf. I had to hold on, or I might just be dragged down into a darkness from which I couldn’t escape. Out into a storm that defied gravity and whirled up and sideways, sucking me in. A pressure that sucked me in, and I just had to hang on, hang on, hang on—Then I saw an image—as clear as it was in front of me—Steve bleeding, from the needles. In his arms. Sick, in bed, weak and thin and sick—and smiling. Why the hell was he smiling? Did he think he was in control? That he still had power? Covered in Band-Aids. We were at home, Steve in our bed, against our sheets. The light was murky. I heard a clicking noise and saw Lady walk into the room and jump on the bed, on Steve’s legs, protecting him, loving him. She looked at me with her moribund eyes but didn’t make a sound. I knew what she was thinking, How did you let this happen to him? Why didn’t you care? Why aren’t you the one in bed?
Why aren’t YOU the one with cancer?
“Hey! HEY!” I heard a voice. A real voice.
The darkness closed beneath me. I heard the singing and felt the shelf in my fingers, I was aware of the pain of gripping them too hard. I lifted my face and opened my eyes. Still holding on to the shelf. I don’t know if I could let go, if I wanted to. My hand seemed more a part of the metal than of me.
I saw the kid. He had thrown a bulky coat over his T-shirt but hadn’t zipped it. He looked so young, not even 18. He was thin.
What the hell was he doing here? Was I dreaming? The lights grew painfully bright, and the music loud. I felt small and cold.
He took a few steps closer and held something out—my wallet, my scarf.
“You left these.” I saw my things. It was weird seeing them in his hands.The boy walked towards me hesitantly and put them on the floor next to my booted food. I sat back and smeared the tears off my face with my coat sleeve.
I dropped my head again, looking at my lap. “I’m sorry.” I said it to the metal and the shelves and to the Lady and Steve in my dream. I don’t know if the kid heard. I let go of the metal, and my hand fell into my lap. My fingers hurt.
“I’m so sorry.”
“I’m very sorry.” I could only whisper, but he was close enough. He heard. The words fell like a warm coat on my shoulders. I could hear my pulse.
I saw his head move. Perhaps he was nodding. I thought he might say something, but he didn’t. I heard his coat swish as he walked away. In a few moments, he passed the store window, zipping up his coat against the snow, which was falling down and just a bit sideways.
I stretched out my legs and sat back against the shelf. The carpet was dirty and stained. My feet didn’t feel like my own. My hands—nothing felt like me. I felt like I only existed behind my eyes. I shut them. I don’t know how long I sat there. When I opened them, there was a Kleenex box next to me, my scarf was around my shoulders.
I left the store.
Steve was sitting at the kitchen counter but scooted off and walked over when I came in. “Hi. You’re here. Thank God! How were the roads?!”
“Bad. But fine. I’m here. I’m sorry.” I dropped my bag, my coat. “I didn’t get the stuff, I didn’t get anything for the cake.”
“No, it’s fine. I made it.”
“You what?” I sank into the table.
“Strawberry shortcake. I know you wanted to. But hey, we get to eat it. Who cares who made it?”
“We don’t have any Bisquick. How did you make it?”
“Well, it’s not exactly strawberry shortcake. It’s like, strawberries, ice cream—which we had, but no cake. Strawberry Short Cake. Get it? Short cake?! Like, minus the cake?”
I looked at him. Into his face. There was something wonderful about holding his glance like this, having him holding mine. It felt like he was holding my face in his hands and kissing it gently. I felt warm.
“OK. Well, Lady thought it was funny.” He pushed her gently with his socked toe. Lady walked dozily over to sniff me. “Did you get the video of her? Snoring?” He squatted down and pulled off my boots, one by one as I lifted my feet.
“I got the video.” Lady was standing under my legs, wagging her tail like her body was trying to fly. She sniffed, trying to find the person she knew under the scent of sweat, cold, and tears. She opened her mouth, her tongue fell out. She wagged her rump and shuffled her feet. I patted my thighs, and she jumped. I put my arms around her long body.
“Get out of those clothes. We’ll eat.”
“I’m a mess. . .”
“You are. Well, it’s your last night to be one. From now on, only I can be a mess. I’m the one with cancer. Girl, you need to be strong for me.” Steve was incredibly capable. But now, he wouldn’t be. He would be different, changed. And as he changed, he needed me to not change. To be as strong as I ever was.
“Can you do that? Be your tough, killer self? I need you, I can’t fight this thing without you.”
Ice and water. Frozen and liquid. He needs me to be who I already am. He knows who I am. Even if I don’t. He can’t do this alone.
Lady started wagging her tail, the force of which knocked her off my lap. Steve stood up and pulled me with him. He took my face in his hands, lifted it up. He kissed my nose. Then my forehead, then my closed eyes. Then my temples. He loved me in this way. He kissed my lips.
I buried myself in his shirt, his chest. I gave over, lost, relinquishing control, gaining love. He said into my hair “I need you.”
I closed my eyes. Cold poured off me into his arms. Lady sniffed our ankles, her tail thumped against the cupboard.
“I’m coming with you tomorrow” I said into his chest.
I could feel his head nod.
“I’m coming with you. Tomorrow is war. Our war.” He kissed my hair.
Ice and water.
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